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Asian American lawmakers urge Congress members to help stop coronavirus-fueled xenophobia

“The best way to stop the spread of coronavirus is to wash your hands, not perpetuate racist stereotypes,” reads a letter sent from the Asian American caucus to fellow Congress members.
Image: Judy Chu
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016.Paul Sancya / AP file

Asian American lawmakers are calling on their colleagues to halt the spread of rumors regarding coronavirus, in an effort to curb the rising xenophobia and discrimination tied to the illness.

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus issued a letter Wednesday to their fellow members of Congress, urging them to “help us prevent hysteria, ignorant attacks, and racist assaults that have been fueled by misinformation pertaining to the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19)” by only sharing confirmed and verifiable information. Rep. Judy Chu, who chairs the caucus and held a press conference regarding the letter Friday, explained it’s legislators’ responsibility to inform constituents in a productive, accurate way.

“The members of Congress are the trusted sources out there,” she told NBC News. “So if they say something about what the truth actually is, I think it has meaning. Also, of course, the members of Congress have a huge role to play in calming the public.”

In the letter, legislators point out that there have been several occasions in which Asian Americans have been attacked as a racist byproduct of the virus. In Indiana, two Hmong guests were harassed and barred from staying at first a Super 8 and then a Days Inn. In another incident, an Asian teen in California was bullied, assaulted, and sent to the emergency due to fears surrounding coronavirus.

In addition, Asian businesses are taking a hit as well. In New York City, where there are no confirmed cases of the virus, one rice noodle shop Yin Ji Chang Fen reported a 40 percent drop in business. Another establishment, Julia Tea & Dim Sum House, suffered a 20 percent decrease in business.

The letter also mentioned that thus far, not all legislators have been disseminating verifiable information. Chu noted that Sen. Tom Cotton had entertained the possibility of the fringe, debunked theory that the virus had originated in a biosafety lab in a Fox News interview. The Republican lawmaker from Arkansas has since walked back on his comments.

“The best way to stop the spread of coronavirus is to wash your hands, not perpetuate racist stereotypes,” the letter reads. “We ask for your help in spreading this message, to help stem both the public health crisis and the deeply disturbing racism targeting the Asian American community.

As for Asian Americans who may be experiencing discrimination as people continue to grapple with the virus, Chu said it is “so important for people to be aware of their surroundings and to try not to be alone when they are traveling at least have a buddy out there.”

“We don't want anybody to be vulnerable to any kind of attack,” she said.

The legislator urged people to read the Center for Disease Control’s guidance on the virus and take precautions like washing hands for at least 20 seconds, using hand sanitizer, and avoiding those who appear very sick.”

“These are things that we can do to keep ourselves healthy,’ she said. “And the healthier we are, the less vulnerable we are to these kinds of attacks.”